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Updated: July 6, 2013 16:47 IST

The travelling bard

Veena Prasad
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Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale; John Ralston Saul, Penguin, Rs.299.
Special Arrangement Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale; John Ralston Saul, Penguin, Rs.299.

Full of varied locales and colourful characters, these short stories are excellent lessons in perspective.

Coming from a writer of political non-fiction, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale is highly satisfying in terms of the sort of insights you would expect from an essayist with an enviable travel record. In John Ralston Saul’s first work of fiction after 15 years, you will encounter dictators, socialites, princesses and assassins set in locales as varied as Mauritania, Paris, Cuernavaca, New York and Haiti.

The narrator is a travelling journalist who tells tales of ruthlessness with humour so dark and tone so deadpan that what finally hits you is the compassion that is thrown almost casually, with one tiny detail that is unexpectedly heartbreaking, one twist at the end that turns your perspective around. This is especially seen in stories set in the poorer parts of the world — poorer, perhaps because all the available wealth is concentrated in the hands of dictators, with whom the narrator has the most interesting conversations.

The focus seamlessly moves between dictators, their detractors, their assassins — and at one point to the audience, which is treated almost like another character with contradicting personality traits. Starkly juxtaposed with these stories are those that are set in a series of opulent homes, making you envy the narrator’s inexhaustible supply of fashionable hostesses who not only invite him to all their parties, but insist on confiding in him their or their intriguing guests’ deepest secrets, which is, of course, how he is able to tell us such interesting tales in the first place.

The well-travelled author’s own experiences are no doubt mirrored throughout the book, and perhaps his wife’s as well (a journalist and stateswoman who served as the Governor General of Canada) adding to the acuteness of the observations. Cities acquire a character of their own, little quirks that you would not find in a travelogue — particularly Paris, which he describes as “not a romantic city at all” and goes on to produce one of the best insights in the book. This novel is really an expanded and reworked edition of his original French chronicle, De si bons Américains, published in 1994. Which is the reason why all the events in the book take place in the 1980s and 1990s. In an interview late last year, Saul had said, “The trick was not to slip into the temptation of making either the rich people or the dictators sound like rich people or dictators in the early 21st century, but to keep the voice and the attitudes and the assumptions of the late 20th century…”

However, when it comes to wealthy socialites, the characters seem to overlap and merge, and half way through the book I found myself going back a couple of chapters just to ascertain which hostess he was talking about. I say “chapters”, but I wonder if I’m using the right word, because chapters imply a novel, and what you have here is really a series of short stories. Do not expect characters to reappear, or events to tie up — you will be disappointed. The one common thread is the narrator who remains anonymous (except for a nickname), his observations wry and dripping with perceptive quotes – “…and whoever ends up paying the bill, you still own your own digestion.” On the subject of love, which he introduces by mentioning a girl he used to be with “…or she with me, depending on who wanted to claim responsibility,” he clarifies, “I use the term “love”, an old fashioned imprecise term, to imply that I don’t quite know what.” And on tragedies: “…those struck believe that whole world knows, as if by osmosis.”

The one diversion that we perhaps could have done without is when the narrator, halfway through the book, “pauses to reflect.” The tone changes a little jarringly from dispassionate to aggressive, and at times oddly defensive. However, these stories are excellent lessons in perspective, helped by a style of writing that brings to mind an atmosphere created by old masters like Conan Doyle and O' Henry. And that quote at the beginning — a very nice touch.

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